A HALF-CENTURY OF EXPERTIZING PROGRESS–THE
© Calvet M. Hahn 1998
Among the U.S. philatelic rarities are covers bearing the 90¢ 1860 stamp with only a handful known. One of these is the ‘Armitage’ cover. It has been known since the 1920s during which time it has been handled by many of the known experts of their period with various results.
The cover is gray-white and bears at 90¢ (Scott #39), 30¢ (Scott # 38) and a 12¢ (Scott 36b) with a red grid killer. The 90 and 30¢ are in the normal upper right position, while the 12¢ is at lower left. The cover, whose back and front are shown in color, is addressed to Messrs. Mackillip Stewart & Co, Calcutta and has a directional marking in the addressor’s hand, ‘p. Overland Mail Marseilles,’ a black-red circular date stamp (c.d.s.) reading NEW YORK. AM. PKT./JAN/26, which gives the origin and date of posting. This is marking #21 on page 354 of the Walter Hubbard and Richard Winter book, North Atlantic Mail Sailings 1840-75, published y the U. S. Philatelic Classics Society in 1988 and now a standard reference work.
A postal rate manuscript ‘2/11’ (which had been misread in the past) is on the face representing two shillings eleven pence. One the back is a chamfered black 32½ x 32 mm boxed CALCUTTA/STEAM LETTER/1861 MR 16/Steam BG./Indian Do.’ And a manuscript 1R 8A 9 pies, representing the rate collected in Calcutta of one rupee, eight annas and nine pies. Also on the back is a London transit of February 8th. These backstamps confirm the year and rate.
During the early part of this century, the validity of a cover was largely based upon provenance and the reputation of the dealers and collectors involved. Serious cover collecting had only begun late in the preceding century and postal history as a subject did not begin to be understood until after World War II.
The earliest record of this cover seems to be when Sefi, Pemberton & Co. sold it in 1920 to George Armitage, a major English cover collectors, as part of a U.S. collection. The sellers were a firm formed by P.L. Pemberton, son of Edward Loines Pemberton, one of England’s greatest experts, and A. L. Sefi, an expert on plating whose 1926 work, An Introduction to Advanced Philately was a classic for advanced students and experts. At this time, there were only two other 90¢ 1860 covers known. One was ex-Seybold (the first major cover collector to have his holdings sold as a cover collection at auction in March 1910). Lot 66 was a 90¢ cover to the Canary Islands, which sold to Senator Gore for $28. Stanley B., Ashbrook subsequently showed it to be fake as it did not represent any known rate. A second example was the Howland cover to Capetown, South Africa, which Ashbrook had acquired and sold to Judge Robert Emerson (1876-1937) for $2,000 in 1929 through the Kelleher auction house. It had been acquired by Ernest Jacobs from a Howland heir in 1912 and sold to Ashbrook in 1921. At the Emerson dispersal, Jacobs bought it back for $1,300 for Chicago collector Saul Newbury.
The Armitage collection was acquired by Frank Godden, an English dealer whose stamp albums are still sought after today. In 1930, Godden proclaimed the Armitage collection the finest U.S. holding in all Europe. It was sold to Henry G. Lapham (1874-1940) shortly after for $100,000 apparently through Boston dealer Warren H. Colson (1882-1963). Lapham, whose monies came from the predecessor company to Texaco, had exhibited his U.S. provisionals in 1926, and at Tipex in May 1936 he showed his U.S. holding, including the Armitage cover, although the name on the exhibit was that of his son, Raymond Lapham.
John Boker, one of the great collectors and experts still living, was asked to quietly handle the dispersal of the Lapham holding. He let Warren Colson, the leading Boston dealer of the period and Lapham’s sometime agent handle the Armitage cover. Colson offered it in 1953 to one of Stanley B. Ashbrook’s clients, who asked Ashbrook’s advice, which was not to buy it. Ashbrook was a major U.S. expert and then at the zenith of his reputation as a result of his work on the 1¢ 1851 issue and his introduction of the analytic case method for examining stamps and covers in his Research Group publication and Special Services, which succeeded it. Ashbrook had exampled the Armitage cover at the Tipex exhibition and had reservations about the rate; he also noted the 30¢ was possibly oxidized. There was also the matter of a personal rivalry with Colson, whom he despised.
The two men, Ashbrook and Colson, were on opposite sides of questions such as how to handle the high value 1851-7 imperforates in the catalog (the premiere gravures). Even more galling was Colson’s claim that the Armitage cover was the finest of the 90¢ covers, for Ashbrook had handled the Howland cover and felt Colson was denigrating Ashbrook’s opinion.
Organized U.S. Expertizing
In the early 1950s, two major European forgers were being exposed, Jean Sperati, whose works had been acquired by the Royal Philatelic Society in 1953, and Michael Zareski, whom Ashbrook was then exposing in Special Services. Both concentrated on cancellations—Sperati’s focus was largely on off cover stamps (which he also enhanced) and Zareski in tying stamps that didn’t belong to stampless covers. A general expert and possibly the leading U.S. collectors of the first half of the 20th century, Alfred Lichtenstein, had gathered a small group and formed the Philatelic Foundation to create an opinion generating body to which collectors and dealers might bring questioned items.
At the same time, Stanley Ashbrook had begun the collection of U..S. Postal Laws and Regulations as a basis for understanding how mail was processed. The use of Ultra-violet examination was also being introduced to examine stamps and covers, while works such as Wilson Harrison’s 1958 Suspect Documents, Their Scientific Examination were setting a scientific basis behind the analyses.
It was in this climate that Warren Colson again offered the Armitage cover for sale in June 1955, at which time Jack Dick, a collector of early U.s. issues, purchased it. In his July 1955 Special Services, Ashbrook formally condemned the cover, suggesting it might be a Zareski product. Ashbrook contended that the cover actually represented only a 42¢ rate, and that the 12¢ stamp had been moved and a 90¢ added to create the $1,32 rate now seen on the cover.
Jack Dick sent his new purchase to the Philatelic Foundation where it received PFC #6104 in November 1955 stating the cover was completely genuine. During the expertizing process Bernard Harmer, a British dealer and auctioneer noted that the 1/8/9 rate on the back was for Indian rupees, annas and pies, a point never discussed by Ashbrook.
One of those examining the cover at this point was Winthrop Boggs, as associate of Lichtenstein and author of Canada (1945) a basic reference work on the stamps and postal history of that country. He had used Lichtenstein’s holdings and research extensively in that work. Boggs reported,
“…examination under UV shows no evidence of tampering and infra-red photography reveals nothing out of order…”
Now that the Philatelic Foundation had certified the genuineness of the Armitage cover, Ashbrook had to challenge its findings, which he did in the January 1956 Special Service. He continued to maintain his rate analysis and backed it up by citing an ex-Steven Brown cover showing a single rate of 21¢ to India via Marseilles, paid only to England. He returned to the Armitage cover again in the February 1956 issue, citing two Ladd correspondence items from Boston to Calcutta as well as the official rates furnished postmasters in January 1861. In the June 1, 1957 issue he gave details of the provenance of the Armitage cover and finally stated it was a product of ‘a Zareski faker.’ He also discussed the two Heard correspondence 90¢ covers which surfaced at auction in 1932.
In November 1963, the Armitage cover was again submitted for a certificate. Requesting it was Charles A. Hirzel, whose classic U.S. holding now graces the Swiss Postal Museum. At this time the cover was sent to major transatlantic collectors, Melvin Schuh and Professor George Hargest. Hargest was still to write his ocean mail classic History of Letter Post Communication Between the United States and Europe 1845-1875 which the Smithsonian published in 1971. This time the certificate (PFC 18,000) condemned the cover. In consequence, Hirzel didn’t purchase it.
In Opinions V (1988), current curator of the Foundation, William Crowe summarized this 1963 opinion, with particular attention to the Hargest/Schuh rate analysis which cited the January 1861 U.S. Mail and Post Office Assistant, which they held did not include a fully paid British Mail rate to the East Indies. They read the manuscript on the face as two times one shilling, while interpreting the Steam Bearing mark on the back as one rupee, 3 annas and 9 pies, equally two shillings one pence.